Shiny, unmistakable and a little strange, the custom wire wheels of choice on some of Houston’s toughest streets are the star attraction of whatever they’re beneath, be it Benz or Bentley, certified slab or laughable junker.
For more than two decades these unconventional rims, going by nicknames like swangers, elbows and pokes, have been coveted as none other by the car enthusiasts in Houston’s poor black neighborhoods.
Those who live there, who ride there, who pay attention to what rolls down the streets, are fully aware of their allure. They also know well the mayhem that sometimes comes from possessing something so desirable.
“They have created an adverse culture of killing,” said community activist Quanell X.
DeAndre Elliott heard the siren and could not resist, and so his 1993 Buick Park Avenue was suitably equipped.
If Elliott had concern for his safety, it was not enough to overcome the pride in ownership. A junior at Worthing High School, he had no time for worry. He’d been through the bad times, losing his mother at an early age, and come through the other side.
He was the popular star running back of the football team. He had a girlfriend. He had something in short supply in the grittiest neighborhoods–hope–and of course he had that car painted a fresh blue-green and finished off with elbows and white-walled Vogues, the only tire worthy of pairing with such expensive rims.
Elliott died Nov. 19 on his girlfriend’s doorstep. He was 17. The only motive police could determine for the shooting was robbery: The assailant wanted Elliott’s car, which is to say his rims. The shooter rode off in it as Elliott lay dying.
If Houston’s rappers are quick to praise the rims, they are just as eager to cite the risk, if one bothers to listen. Then again, the acknowledged, danger may add to the appeal, lessening the intrusion of imitators and wannabes. If you roll on swangers, you roll ready. Self-defense is a required add-on to the purchase price of $2,000 or more.
“The police will never admit it, but if they want to catch young black men with guns, they’ll stop a car with elbows and Vogues because they know the young men will have guns,” Quanell X said.
It’s mostly a Texas thing, the pursuit of the poke, but the story of rim-inspired violence has been written and rewritten in most major cities around the country. Up north, “spinners” had their appeal, admired for their continuing movement when the car stops. In greater Miami, the rimjackers have killed for Vogues atop “Trus,” a different sort of wire wheel. In southern California, it’s Dayton wire wheels, slang translation “danas,” made famous by Snoop Dogg. Elbows might get you laughed at in Los Angeles. It takes danas to get you shot.
To many rimjackers, the wheels are nothing more than a fungible commodity, a high-demand item that can be quickly turned into cash. To others, they are the prize in and of themselves, representing a quick ticket to acceptance.
“You have individuals who don’t have other options to get respect and get achievement in our society,” said Luis Salinas, a University of Houston sociologist and criminologist. “Instead, they focus on one little item, and they do what they have to do to get it. They may not have a good home or anything else, but they can have a set of killer rims.”
There are rules of a sort for rolling on swangers. Street rules, written nowhere but known to many.
Besides the advantage of numbers and enough firepower to make it meaningful, you are careful where you park and careful about women who approach you in clubs with interest that comes a little too easy.
Too often the careless find themselves marks for an affectionate offer that ends with a quick phone call to an associate with a gun.
Therein lies the eternal paradox of the poke. You get them to be noticed, but it’s getting noticed that makes you a target.
Hip-hop culture has its own car fetish, all of it falling under the general label of “urban vehicles.”
They can run from tricked-out SUVs on 20-inch “dubs” to old sedans on oversized wheels (referred to as “donks”) known to Houston’s own slabs, a nickname born of an acronym–“slow, loud and bangin’.”
The true slab is usually an older American sedan or convertible. Many slabs boast a meticulously redone interior, and all feature serious sound systems with massive woofers in the trunk, and elbows and Vogues.
In theory, a sweet looking slab would be just as fine on any set of decent wheels: a nice set of racing mags, say, or some luxe Giovannas or even a more toned-down set of wire rims.
But no elbows means no slab. Simple as that, anyone will tell you. People would wonder about you. And they would laugh.
Swangers pull it all together, for better, for worse.